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March 03, 2014 3:23 PM Food Deserts

By Ed Kilgore

I have no pretense whatsoever of being a “foodie” in the sense of having a deep knowledge of either gourmet cooking or nutrition. But having moved around an awful lot over the decades, I am acutely aware of geography as determining food options—not just access to different cuisines, but to healthy and/or affordable food generally.

So I was interested to note a piece by Rebecca Burns in the current issue of Atlanta Magazine about that city’s “food deserts”—areas where access to fresh food or even grocery stores is limited or non-existent.

Burns reports that Atlanta has been rated the third-worst “urban food desert” in the country, behind New Orleans and Chicago. To an extent that is probably unparalleled, though, Atlanta’s large urban and suburban pockets not served by produce markets or grocery stores owes a lot to the city’s famous sprawl:

When you talk about Atlanta’s food deserts, you have to talk about the three themes entwined in every civic issue in this region: race, class, and sprawl. The fact is, food deserts are more prevalent in nonwhite neighborhoods. In poor communities, food is more expensive. And here’s an irony: Much of the local produce prized by the city’s finest chefs is grown in urban farms in poor neighborhoods—produce that is often trucked across town to farmers markets in wealthier enclaves. But of all the factors, none is more important than transportation. Our low population density combined with a lack of comprehensive public transit means that many people simply cannot get to places where fresh food is available.

This is a subject many readers probably understand better than I do, now that I live in a small city with extraordinary access to fresh produce. The irony Burns frequently refers to of a city loaded with new restaurants and celebrity chefs having limited food options is a bit lost on me, since that is an Atlanta that emerged after I left in the mid-1990s (during most of my residency Atlanta was famous for having no distinctive food scene beyond a few fabulous but obscure soul food joints). But I do recall living on Capitol Hill in Washington in the late 1990s, and making a weekly trek to the suburbs for groceries when I didn’t feel like risking the one nearby grocery store, a Safeway in such a high-crime area that it was colloquially known as the “Un-Safeway.” And I faced a similar situation living in Midtown Atlanta in the early 1980s, though now there seem to be a couple of chain stores relatively near where I used to live.

The politics and economics of food access indeed encompass a host of thorny issues, as Burns indicates. Being poor and without a car or decent public transportation options should not mean having to pay a lot more for food of questionable quality and variety, along with inconvenience and safety issues. But that’s how it seems to work out in this market paradise.

Ed Kilgore is a contributing writer to the Washington Monthly. He is managing editor for The Democratic Strategist and a senior fellow at the Progressive Policy Institute. Find him on Twitter: @ed_kilgore.

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